Arkansas' death toll from the coronavirus rose to almost 11,000 on Wednesday even as the number of covid-19 patients in the state's hospitals continued falling.
Meanwhile, despite a backlog of faxed-in test results that officials say has inflated the state's new case numbers in recent days, the 373 added to the state's count on Wednesday were fewer than the number added a day earlier and the previous Wednesday.
Just over a month after it topped 10,000, the death toll, as tracked by the Arkansas Department of Health, rose by 28 to 10,999.
Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, the Health Department's chief medical officer, said only 11 of the deaths reported Wednesday happened within the past month.
Of the others, one was from December, 11 were from January and five were from early February.
Dillaha has said that the huge number of cases reported during the surge powered by the omicron variant had resulted in a backlog of test results from providers who haven't converted to electronic reporting.
The faxed-in reports are being manually entered into the Health Department's system, causing weeks-old cases to be added to the state's count.
The issue has become more pronounced as the state's overall new case numbers have fallen, making the proportion of them that are from old reports larger.
Dillaha said Wednesday that department officials were still assessing the size of the backlog, which will help determine a strategy for dealing with it.
"I think they're weighing their options," Dillaha said. "Is it better to just enter them all at once and have a data clean-up day? They haven't determined how they'll be handled."
She said she spoke Tuesday to the department's liaison to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about how the old cases might be affecting CDC maps that are linked to federal guidance and requirements.
For instance, new cases are a key metric used to label counties according to their level of community transmission, which determines how often nursing homes must test their unvaccinated employees.
New cases are also a factor in the CDC's "covid-19 community levels" that determine where the agency recommends people wear masks in public places, including in schools.
"We plan to submit a description of the issue to them, and the data issue, to see what can be done about that," Dillaha said. "We're talking with them to see if there's a way to in a sense mitigate the impact of the delayed cases."
Rachel Bunch, executive director of the Arkansas Health Care Association, which represents nursing homes, said similar issues affecting county case numbers have arisen in the past.
"It's out of the control of the facilities," Bunch said. "The facilities will try to adapt and test."
She added that, in response to previous episodes, the Health Department "has been good about communicating with us in the areas that are affected."
ACTIVE CASES FALL
Since they represent infections of people already classified as having recovered, the old cases haven't added to the state's active case total, which has consistently fallen since it reached an all-time high January.
The active case total fell Wednesday by 109, to 1,701, its lowest level since June 9.
After rising the previous three days, the average daily increase in the state's total case count over a rolling seven-day period fell Wednesday to 463, which was still up slightly from an average of about 462 a day a week earlier.
Already at its lowest level since June 16, the number of covid-19 patients in the state's hospitals fell by three, to 213, its 12th straight daily decline.
Dropping for the seventh day in a row, the number who were on ventilators fell by two, to 37, the smallest number since June 8.
The number who were in intensive care, however, rose by two, to 67, after falling the previous three days.
At its hospitals in Little Rock and Springdale, Arkansas Children's had six covid-19 patients on Wednesday, the same number as a day earlier, spokeswoman Hilary DeMillo said.
Three of the patients on Wednesday were on ventilators, which was also unchanged from a day earlier.
More than half of the six patients on Wednesday were at least 5 years old, making them eligible for vaccination, but none had been fully immunized, DeMillo said.
At a meeting Wednesday, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Medical Center CEO Steppe Mette briefed the UA System's board of trustees on the hospital's plans to close its drive-thru testing site next week in response to declining demand.
"For the first time in two years, [covid-19 data] really does not warrant keeping it open," Mette said.
UAMS spokeswoman Leslie Taylor has said the site will close March 25. UAMS will offer testing by appointment at the Monroe Building in Little Rock.
A vaccine clinic UAMS has operated at the building will close Friday, also due to declining demand.
Mette said the Little Rock hospital had just 11 covid-19 patients on Wednesday, down from an all-time high of 99 on Jan. 25.
"We were all very happy and relieved to see a pretty significant receding of covid at UAMS," Mette said.
Covid-19 tests and screenings at the drive-thru site totaled 139,278 through February, including 7,498 in the first two months of this year, according to board documents.
According to the documents, the dozen Arkansas National Guard soldiers who helped at site in January and February allowed it to add an extra lane and increase its hours of operation during a period of "extremely high demand for testing."
The state's cumulative count of cases since March 2020 grew Wednesday to 827,709.
The Health Department's tally of vaccine doses that had been administered rose by 1,283, which was smaller by 481 than the daily increase a week earlier.
Booster shots made up about 36% of the most recent increase.
The count of first doses rose by 388, which was smaller by almost 300 than the increase in first doses a week earlier.
After rising the previous two days, the average number of total doses administered each day over a rolling seven-day period fell Wednesday to 1,117, its lowest level since the Health Department started regularly releasing vaccination numbers in January 2021.
The average for first doses fell to 366, which was also a record low.
According to the CDC, the percentage of Arkansans who had received at least one vaccine dose remained Wednesday at 66%, and the percentage who had been fully vaccinated remained at 53.8%.
Of those who had been fully vaccinated, 38.3% had received a booster dose as of Wednesday, up from 38.2% a day earlier.
Among the states and District of Columbia, Arkansas continued to rank 37th in the percentage of its residents who had received at least one dose.
In the percentage who were fully vaccinated, it continued to be roughly tied with Tennessee for 45th, ahead of Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, Wyoming and Alabama.
Nationally, 76.7% of people had received at least one dose, and 65.3% were fully vaccinated.
Of the fully vaccinated population nationally, 44.4% had received a booster dose.
Information for this article was contributed by Jaime Adame of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.